Conspiracy theories claiming that the students who survived the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida last week are “crisis actors” have spread like wildfire across social media platforms — despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news.
The baseless theories — one of which has gotten more than 110,000 shares on Facebook — claim that students like seniors David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, who have been outspoken about gun control in the wake of the shooting that left 17 of their classmates and teachers dead, are actually paid actors. Their role, the conspiracy theorists claim, is to make the shooting seem worse than it is and drive public opinion in favor of gun control policies.
This latest piece of fake news is endemic across all major social media platforms. Facebook features dozens of videos, some viewed tens of thousands of times, claiming the teenagers being interviewed by the media have been spotted before, or are not reacting the way they should in the wake of a major tragedy.
The claims are also popular on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. “Its obvious these kids are reading a screen or notes,” far-right troll Laura Loomer tweeted. The latest accusations also follow an earlier far-right smear campaign against Hogg by the Gateway Pundit, which claims Hogg is a pawn for the FBI being used to advocate anti-gun legislation.
This is how absurd, gaslighting "crisis actor" theories go viral.
One @facebook post from this person has 111,000+ shares. Another has 23,000.
This is one person, two posts.
Imagine the millions and millions of people crackpot theories like this are reaching and influencing. pic.twitter.com/VU7cKCJhXq
— Micah Grimes (@MicahGrimes) February 20, 2018
The idea that mass shootings are false-flag attacks, and that so-called crisis actors are used to give the impression that the shootings were worse then they were, are common themes in the right-wing conspiracy theory echo chamber.
After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, grieving parents spent years being harassed by “truthers” for their “fake grieving.” But these conspiracy theories, once only found on the fringe parts of the internet, have become increasingly mainstream. On Tuesday, a Florida state lawmaker’s aide was put on leave after he claimed to the Tampa Bay Times that the students who criticized lawmakers on TV were crisis actors.
Here's the email. I asked for more information to back up the claim and was sent another email that linked to a YouTube conspiracy video. pic.twitter.com/VRSVOcjj3E
— Alex Leary (@learyreports) February 20, 2018
In the last year, Facebook has instituted a slew of changes in an effort to crack down on fake news. The social media giant has rolled out a fact-checking tool, tightened advertising rules in an effort to combat clickbait, and admitted its role in inadvertently exposing Americans to Russian propaganda during the 2016 election. Facebook also recently changed its newsfeed to prioritize posts from friends and family instead of public content, in an effort to insulate its users from fake news.
However the viral spread of the “crisis actor” theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that the platform is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation, especially among individual profiles that fervently believe the conspiracies they’re spreading, no matter how ludicrous they sound.